How to Handle Sensitive and Complicated Legal Translations

If you feel stress when faced with translating a legal document, you would not be alone: The stakes are very high when you need to produce documents, contracts, and agreements in another language. This type of content requires precision, confidentiality, and security in the translation process. A single misinterpretation or miscommunication can have far-reaching consequences, jeopardizing the integrity of a case, a business deal, or even an individual’s reputation.

There is a tried-and-true way to make sure your translated legal documents– contracts, patents, business agreements, court evidence, and certificates–meet all your requirements. Here we’ll explore how to handle these translations with care, precision, and confidentiality. We’ll discuss the importance of a rigorous translation process and measures to ensure accuracy and security, as well as why you need to work with a translation vendor you trust.

Why Do You Need Experts to Translate Your Legal Materials?

Some Industries are obvious in their need for precise and clear legal translations: law, finance, pharmaceuticals, and international trade, for example. These sectors often deal with complex regulations and documentation that must be accurately translated to maintain legal and operational compliance. A untrained or unskilled translator could easily make mistakes that could lead to misunderstandings, contract disputes, and lawsuits. For example, precise terminology and legal nuances lost in poor translation could significantly alter the intended meaning and result in costly litigation or damage to reputation.

How Bad Can It Get? Examples of Poor Legal Translation

Let’s look at some examples of how poor legal translation altered the course of a legal case:

Willie Ramirez Malpractice Settlement (USA, 1980)
Eighteen-year-old Willie Ramirez became a quadriplegic due to a hospital misdiagnosis. The settlement resulted from the mistranslation of a single word. Ramirez was brought to the hospital in a comatose state by his family. The Spanish-speaking family explained they believed he was experiencing a reaction to food poisoning, using the word ‘intoxicado’ to explain that he was poisoned. In Spanish, the word refers to anything ingested that makes a person sick.

The interpreter, however, translated the word as intoxicated. Doctors treated him for a drug overdose, overlooking the real problem – bleeding in the brain that continued for days, resulting in his complete paralysis (NPR)

State of California vs. Cathy Mendoza (USA, 2009)
Judge H. Tierman dismissed a murder charge against Cathy Mendoza after he found that the testimony of Spanish-speaking witnesses had been mistranslated by certified court translators.

The inaccuracies were significant enough that the judge ruled that “Justice can’t be done if the jury does not have the proper information in front of them.”, leading to the dismissal of the charges (Language Oasis)​.

The Nuremberg Trials (Germany, 1945-1946)
Peter Uiberall, the chief interpreter of the Nuremberg trials, noticed too many instances of the word “yes” in the Nuremberg transcripts. He later noted that translators had made the mistake of translating the word “ja” as “yes” in every instance.

While the translators were not technically wrong, as “ja” does mean “yes” in the German language, it is often used as a placeholder during conversations. It would be equivalent to the English-speaking use of “um”, “well”, or “like.”

Obviously, the word “yes” can completely redefine the meaning of the witnesses’ testimony. (Language Oasis).

Why Legal Translation Requires Deep Expertise

Legal translation is not only about language fluency but also about understanding legal jargon and concepts that vary widely between jurisdictions and locales. The translator must deliver accurate content that is legally sound in another legal system without altering its original intended meaning. There are 4 keys to excellent legal translation:

Understanding the Terminology: Mastery of legal terminology is crucial. A translator must accurately translate legal terms that can directly or indirectly affect a person or law. Incorrect interpretation could change substantive rights or obligations within the legal documents. Additionally, translators must continually adapt since new rules and regulations frequently redefine existing legal terms.

Understanding the Law: Since laws differ significantly at all levels between geographic and political regions, a legal translator must be knowledgeable about the specific local legal systems relevant to the translation. This knowledge ensures that the translation is compliant with local laws and customs.

Accuracy and Quality Are Critical: In legal translation, there is no room for error because even small mistakes can lead to big legal repercussions. For example, a misinterpreted term in a legal agreement could change the contractual obligations of a person or a company, leading to disputes or financial loss. Maintaining high standards of accuracy not only protects the interests of the parties involved but also upholds the integrity of the legal process itself.

Culture and Nuance: Legal translators must also consider the way culture impacts meaning and understanding in translated documents.  For example, cultural nuances can greatly affect the meaning of words and phrases. Certain terms might carry specific meanings or legal implications in one culture that are completely absent in another. Also, cultural alignment can help make the translated legal documents more accessible and understandable to those who rely on them. Lastly, insensitivity to cultural norms can lead to offense or misunderstandings, which could compromise the effectiveness of legal proceedings.

How to Get Your Legal Translation Completed

There are a few things you can do to make sure your legal translation is successful: good documentation, clear expectations, appropriate processes, and clear communication.

Here are some things you can do to manage your risk:

Provide Necessary Documents and References to Your Translation Vendor
Every successful legal translation project starts with open and complete communication with your vendor. Providing a complete set of documents to be translated, including relevant background materials, glossary of terms, and style guidelines, can all help with a smooth translation. It’s also crucial to specify the target audience, any legal requirements or compliance standards, and the desired timeline for the project.

Avoid Machine Translation (MT)
General translation services (e.g. Google Translate) and other MT tools often lack the precision needed for legal document translations. Despite advances in technology, MT algorithms still struggle with nuances such as tone, intent, and double meanings, which are often critical in legal language. Machine translation can also experience difficulties in understanding any specialized terminology or localized legal language, leading to potential problems.

Employ Professional Legal Translators with Relevant Expertise
Employing professional legal translators who are bilingual and have specific legal expertise ensures that translations are both linguistically and legally accurate. This specialized knowledge allows them to grasp the implications of legal terminology, ensuring that all parts of a translation are accurately conveyed and legally sound. Their expertise during back or reverse translations helps to prevent any misinterpretations that could easily lead to legal disputes or procedural delays.

What to Look for in a Legal Translation Service

When you’re looking for a legal translation service partner, pay particular attention to their experience, references, and certifications. Here are some ideas to help guide you in the right direction:

  • Research their website, consider what organizations they have worked with previously, what services they offer (certified or notarized translations), review any ISO qualifications, and read over customer reviews (good and bad).
  • Word-of-mouth referrals from your network can provide you with some positive leads.
  • Look for evidence of good communication, transparent project management, and a rigorous quality control process to ensure accurate legal translations.
  • Make sure they offer certified translations. A certified translation is accompanied by an official certification from the translator stating that the translation provided is true and accurate. Certified translations are often required for official uses such as court documents (testimonies, subpoenas, warrants), immigration papers (visa and citizenship applications), and government submissions (tax issues, employment, business).
  • Lastly, verify that your legal translation provider handles documents using secure data transfer and storage methods. If your geographical location is different from that of your translation provider, make sure they are following any necessary regulations. For example, the GDPR Act in Europe or specific state-level privacy policies in the United States should be observed when necessary.

What You Need to Know About Price and Turnaround Times for Legal Translations

During the process of finding the best legal translation service for your needs, it can be easy to overlook some of the more mundane considerations such as:

  • Cost: Legal translations generally cost more due to the high level of expertise required, the complexity of legal terms, and the need for precision. Any budgeting should consider the potential for multiple revisions and the necessity of a thorough review process.
  • Timelines: Legal translations can take longer due to the need for meticulous accuracy and possibly multiple rounds of revisions. Be sure to set clear timelines and expectations with your chosen legal translation service provider. This will be key to avoiding difficult conversations and ensuring deadlines are met.

Next Steps for Your Legal Translations

If you need professional translation services, looking for a qualified vendor will be your next step. Hansem Global has 30 years’ experience translating legal documents. We ensure that each document is treated with strict confidentiality and complies with relevant legal standards by only engaging translators who have the needed language skills and are also deeply familiar with the legal systems involved.

Through the integration of linguistic skill, cultural understanding, and legal expertise, we provide translations that maintain the integrity and intent of the original documents. This commitment to quality and precision makes us a trusted partner for legal professionals and organizations worldwide.

Don’t hesitate to partner with Hansem Global, a knowledgeable and professional translation and localization service. Contact us today and take the first step toward a building a legal translation program that always gives you precise, accurate, and culturally appropriate translations.